Donald Blankenship, the former Massey Energy chief, was charged yesterday by a US grand jury in Charleston, West Virginia, on charges of violating federal mine safety standards, impeding regulator efforts to inspect the Upper Big Mine mine, and securities fraud, Bloomberg reported.
If convicted on all four charges, Blankenship could face a maximum sentence of 31 years for his involvement in a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 workers and was the “worst US coal industry disaster in almost 40 years.”
During an investigation into the explosion, it was discovered that managers had told workers to ignore basic safety measures, like making sure the mine was properly ventilated, as a means to increase coal production.
In a statement yesterday, US Attorney Booth Goodwin said Blankenship is accused of making false statements regarding Massey’s safety standards and misleading the company’s investors.
“Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing,” the indictment said. “Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”
Another Massey executive, David Hughart, was convicted in 2013 of “conspiring to violate mine safety laws in connection with the disaster,” and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.
The mine’s former safety chief, Hughie Elbert Stover, was also sentenced to three years in prison for lying to investigators about the company’s practice of warning workers when safety inspectors were on site and for ordering the destruction of company documents.
Massey’s history is littered with other examples of corruption. In 1998, Hugh Caperton sued Massey over claims that it had run his coal company out of business. Caperton said that Massey purchased a business with which his company had a contract and then aborted that contract, financially injuring Capterton. He also claimed that Massey had also reneged on a deal to buy his company, Reuters reported.
A jury awarded Caperton $50 million in damages, $76 million with interest, but that verdict was later overturned by the West Virginia Supreme Court. Pictures then surfaced of one of the justices, Elliott Maynard, vacationing in the French Riviera with Blankenship, the Charleston Gazette reported. It was also discovered that Blankenship had donated more than $3 million to another justice, Brent Benjamin. Maynard recused himself in future appeals, but Benjamin did not and ruled in favor of Massey again.
Caperton was awarded $5 million by a jury earlier this year, but appealed because the amount awarded was much lower than the original jury’s verdict. Alpha Natural Resources (which purchased Massey in 2001) filed a motion asking that the $5 million verdict be set aside completely.
Alpha agreed in 2013 to pay more than $209 million to resolve a criminal investigation into the explosion, Bloomberg reported, and paid a $265 million settlement over claims the company misled investors about its safety record. Alpha is also facing claims in Delaware Chancery Court over its corrupt business practices.